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Soccer Soaring

Between 1990-2015, the number of players registered in organized youth soccer programs has doubled. So, do pigskin-loving Oklahomans finally love the world’s most popular sport?

Rob Harmon
February 15, 2017

The largest youth sports organization in the United States isn’t for baseball or football. It isn’t even for basketball. It’s for playing soccer.

Boasting 3 million members from ages 5-19, the U.S. Soccer association is a non-profit organization that has gained traction since 1974. Because of it and other organizations like it, soccer had over 9.2 million participants in 2013 for ages 7-17, closing in on basketball’s 13.8 million.

How and why has soccer in the U.S. become bigger than ever?

According to Oklahoma soccer icon Kerry Shubert, Title IX — a federal law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in any federally funded education program or activity — has been a major boost.

“The opportunity for girls to play college soccer is big,” says Shubert, an Oklahoma Soccer Association hall of famer. “There’s 26 schools in Oklahoma offering college scholarships, so there’s a much better avenue for girls. Over 300 Division I women’s soccer programs offer 14 full scholarships, compared to boys that offer 9.9.”

Another catalyst for the game’s increasing popularity was the U.S. Women’s National Team’s performance in 2015.

Carli Lloyd found herself at midfield all alone with the ball during the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup Finals against Japan at BC Place Stadium in Vancouver, Canada. Already ahead by the score of 3-0 (and having already scored two goals), Lloyd was having the game of her life. But she wasn’t finished. After receiving a pass from one of her defenders, she pushed past an opponent into open field. It was then she decided to attempt one of the most spectacular goals in American soccer history. From 50 yards away, Lloyd lined herself up and sailed a laser-guided rocket past a Japanese goalkeeper for her third goal, sealing the World Cup. American soccer and professional women’s sports in the United States were changed forever.

“My daughters and I were at that game,” says Keith Averitt, a native Tulsan and soccer alum from John Brown University. “It was unbelievable.”

A dad to four active youth soccer players, he sees soccer continuing to grow. “I think we’re seeing a tectonic shift in kids transferring from football to soccer due to concussion related symptoms and studies that show a direct relationship between football and concussions,” he says. “More parents are pulling kids out of football and putting them on soccer teams.”

Soccer had over 9.2 million participants in 2013 for ages 7-17, closing in on basketball’s 13.8 million.

Averitt and his wife, Amy, juggle four different soccer player’s activities throughout the week for the love of the game. The oldest, Tori, an 18-year-old sweeper, and 16-year-old Dani, a striker, both drive cars and can get themselves to their own games if needed. Molly, 12, is a defender and her younger brother, Carson, 10, is a center midfielder.

“It can be chaotic,” Averitt says. “We want to see all their games, but sometimes we have to divide up, due to scheduling conflicts.”

Mark McIntosh, owner of Mac’s Soccer Shack and Tulsa Soccer Club Hurricane, also has some opinions as to why America loves soccer. And he should know, considering he played professionally in the NPSL (National Professional Soccer League) and is the brother of Tom McIntosh, the head men’s soccer coach at the University of Tulsa.

“Now that MLS [Major League Soccer] has established itself as the third or fourth [attended] sport in the country, by getting out of all those football stadiums and building their own soccer-specific stadiums, that has been big, where kids can latch on,” McIntosh says.

Soccer Made In Germany, one of the first U.S. TV shows dedicated to soccer, ran from 1976-88. The program allowed soccer lovers to watch game highlights from around the world, but rarely was an actual game available to watch more than a couple times a month.

“Now you can watch soccer on TV seven days a week in America,” says McIntosh. “The visibility is far, far more reaching now than it ever was before.”

‍Being on national networks, it’s easier to find games to watch and it’s getting more people involved.

Shubert agrees. “Being on national networks, it’s easier to find games to watch and it’s getting more people involved. MLS deals with ESPN and other networks have been important too.”

The MLS, North America’s highest level of men’s professional soccer, now has 22 teams. The NASL (North American Soccer League) and the USL (United Soccer League), have eight and 30 men teams respectively, including the Tulsa Roughnecks and the OKC Energy FC. The NWSL (National Women’s Soccer League) now has 10 professional teams across the country. More than ever, young American soccer players (boys and girls) are seeing their dream come true of playing professionally.

McIntosh doesn’t see the sheer numbers of participants as the biggest reason for the game’s enthusiasm. But it is the quality of the game that’s providing a better representation of soccer to the average American. TSC Hurricane, McIntosh’s organization, the No. 1 competitive club in Oklahoma, now boasts 88 quality coaches.

“All our coaches have played at a good level,” he says. “That’s made a difference from a competitive standpoint.

“I have a feeling that our club is at about 60 percent girls,” says McIntosh, citing another exciting aspect of the sport’s surging youth participation. “We have about 1,400 kids, ranging from 6 years old to 18. I think there’s more girls playing in the country than boys, and that has a huge impact."

Regionally, Tulsa has been a tremendous hub for soccer, hosting two major youth soccer tournaments a year, and McIntosh’s TSC Hurricane has been a big part of making that happen. Every year in April, McIntosh’s club organizes over 400 teams from multiple states to compete in the Lexus Cup. And in November, the Friendship Cup brings over 300 youth soccer teams in for friendly competition and talent showcasing. Together, these two tournaments bring in nearly $10 million of revenue for the city each year.